Push for Maryland Racetrack Slots Has Obstacles

With the 90-day session of the General Assembly at its midpoint, the effort to legalize slot machines at Maryland racetracks has bogged down. Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr. has gone back to the drawing board with his proposal which had, incredibly, angered nearly everyone.

The governor announced he would hire an outside consultant to analyze his plan for installing 10,500 slot machines at four tracks. The major stumbling block was the plan's division of revenue.

Ehrlich proposed about 64% of net revenue would go to public education, while about 25% would go to track operators and about 8% to horsemen and breeders. Track operators said they would need more to justify paying a combined $350 million in one-time licensing fees and spending millions of dollars in track upgrades.

Meanwhile, another Ehrlich proposal sparked near-unanimous opposition in the racing industry. The governor's slots initiative included a provision to abolish the Maryland Racing Commission and creating a new board to oversee racing and gaming.

Some suspected Joe De Francis, president and chief executive officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, was behind the idea. Lou Ulman, chairman of the racing commission, said Ehrlich's plan was payback to De Francis for contributions.

Ulman and fellow commissioner John Franzone, especially, have been critical of the MJC.

"It's called politics," Ulman said. "This is one way of getting rid of the members in one fell swoop."

De Francis and a spokesman for Ehrlich denied De Francis had urged the governor to dump the commission. "That's just absurd," De Francis said.

The spokesman said the governor believed one coordinated commission overseeing racing and gaming would be more effective than separate panels. Racing leaders said they feared racing would get lost on the combined board, of which only two of nine members would come from the racing industry.